The Anglo-American Conservative Tradition and Its Surprising Jewish Roots

In today’s political discourse, argue Ofir Haivry and Yoram Hazony, there is a tendency to conflate two distinct sets of ideas: a conservative tradition embraced perhaps most importantly by Edmund Burke and Alexander Hamilton and a liberal tradition, founded by John Locke and embraced by Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson. These competing traditions share key points in common: respect for individual liberty, belief in republican government, and hostility toward dictatorship. But they differ in their attitudes toward universalism, religion, and progress. Haivry and Hazony trace the conservative tradition from the 15th-century English political philosopher John Fortescue to the 19th century, and note the influence of Judaism on some of its most important exponents:

According to Fortescue, . . . the powers of the English king are limited by the traditional laws of the English nation, in the same way—as Fortescue emphasizes—that the powers of the Jewish king in the Mosaic constitution in Deuteronomy are limited by the traditional laws of the Israelite nation. . . . [But] the decisive chapter in the formation of modern Anglo-American conservatism . . . is dominated by the figure of John Selden (1584–1654), probably the greatest theorist of Anglo-American conservatism. . . .

Selden saw himself as an heir to Fortescue. . . . His own much more extensive theoretical defense of English national traditions appeared in the form of short historical treatises on English law, as well as in a series of massive works examining political theory and law in conversation with classical rabbinic Judaism. In these works, Selden sought to defend conservative traditions, including the English one, not only against [advocates of absolute monarchy], but also against the claims of a universalist rationalism, according to which men could simply consult their own reason, which was the same for everyone, to determine the best constitution for mankind. . . .

Selden recognizes that, in making . . . selections from the traditions of the past, we tacitly rely upon a higher criterion for selection, a natural law established by God, which prescribes “what is truly best” for mankind in the most elementary terms. In his Natural and National Law, Selden explains that this natural law has been discovered over long generations since the biblical times and has come down to us in various versions. Of these, the most reliable is that of the Talmud, which describes the seven laws of the children of Noah prohibiting murder, theft, sexual perversity, cruelty to beasts, idolatry and defaming God, and requiring courts of law to enforce justice. . . .

Nonetheless, Selden emphasizes that no nation can govern itself by directly appealing to such fundamental law. . . It is thus wise to respect the different laws found among nations, both those that appear right to us and those that appear mistaken, for different perspectives may each have something to contribute to our pursuit of the truth.

Read more at American Affairs

More about: Conservatism, History & Ideas, John Locke, John Selden, Judaism, Political philosophy

Recognizing a Palestinian State Won’t Help Palestinians, or Even Make Palestinian Statehood More Likely

While Shira Efron and Michael Koplow are more sanguine about the possibility of a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict, and more critical of Israel’s policies in the West Bank, than I am, I found much worth considering in their recent article on the condition of the Palestinian Authority (PA). Particularly perceptive are their comments on the drive to grant diplomatic recognition to a fictive Palestinian state, a step taken by nine countries in the past few months, and almost as many in total as recognize Israel.

Efron and Koplow argue that this move isn’t a mere empty gesture, but one that would actually make things worse, while providing “no tangible benefits for Palestinians.”

In areas under its direct control—Areas A and B of the West Bank, comprising 40 percent of the territory—the PA struggles severely to provide services, livelihoods, and dignity to inhabitants. This is only partly due to its budgetary woes; it has also never established a properly functioning West Bank economy. President Mahmoud Abbas, who will turn ninety next year, administers the PA almost exclusively by executive decrees, with little transparency or oversight. Security is a particular problem, as militants from different factions now openly defy the underfunded and undermotivated PA security forces in cities such as Jenin, Nablus, and Tulkarm.

Turning the Palestinian Authority (PA) from a transitional authority into a permanent state with the stroke of a pen will not make [its] litany of problems go away. The risk that the state of Palestine would become a failed state is very real given the PA’s dysfunctional, insolvent status and its dearth of public legitimacy. Further declines in its ability to provide social services and maintain law and order could yield a situation in which warlords and gangs become de-facto rulers in some areas of the West Bank.

Otherwise, any steps toward realizing two states will be fanciful, built atop a crumbling foundation—and likely to help turn the West Bank into a third front in the current war.

Read more at Foreign Affairs

More about: Palestinian Authority, Palestinian statehood